Angel Of Mine: Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca talk 'Street Angel'

With the proliferation of the Internet and the message board explosion, there's a lot of talk about what to "do" with superheroes. Some suggest dropping the price of comics, some say the storytelling needs to change et al: but if you ask the Aweful Books Comic studio, they'll give you a simple answer:

Superheroes need to be fun.

Premiering in March from Slave Labor Graphics, "Street Angel" is the brainchild of both artist/co-writer Jim Rugg and co-writer/co-creator Brian Maruca, who spoke exclusively to CBR News about what to expect from this unusual series.

"The premise of 'Street Angel' is that Jesse Sanchez, a homeless orphan fights crime and frequently saves the world as a skateboarding, karate chopping, vigilantress in Wilkesborough - a terribly poor ghetto of Angel City," explains Rugg.

"The inspiration for the series comes from a number of sources. At the time of 'Street Angel's' creation, I had been reading a lot of terrible superhero scripts and superhero mini comics. Some of them were so poor that I would read them 3 or 4 times before I knew whether the writer was being serious or comedic. Those naive, badly written scripts were a major influence. Brian and I had also just finished an 80-page manual on how to commit suicide successfully and I think we both wanted to do something a little lightweight. 'Heatvision and Jack,' the television pilot by Rob Schrab and Ben Stiller that starred Jack Black and featured Owen Wilson influenced the book. Imaginary memories of Silver Age comics, Jack Kirby, Dan Clowes' 'Eightball #22,' and Mignola's 'Amazing Screw-On Head' all were major influences."

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For Brian Maruca, the writer of "Street Angel," this series represents something more: a chance to love comic books again. "I'm not really a comic fan (I haven't purchased any comics since the late 80's). My main inspiration stems from the tediousness of superhero comics (at least from when I was reading them). When did they become so melodramatic, the characters so sterile? Couldn't Peter Parker make some kind of 'spidey-sense tingling' joke about needing to go to the bathroom? If I were Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, I would've killed myself by now. So, I think, we just wanted to take the superhero, use all of the conventions and try to make it entertaining and easier to relate to."

That's a viewpoint Rugg shares and explains that perception plays a role in why superhero comics don't seem to get the acclaim they could. "A lot of people in comics talk about the superhero as genre. I don't think that most creators approach the superhero genre the way one might approach something like noir. I think that because the superhero genre has dominated the comics medium without a lot of critical dialogue, the genre itself has not been considered in an academic sense. A few works have taken a deconstructionist approach to superheroes, but overall the genre aspect of it has been ignored (except for use as a marketing tool)."

The cast of "Street Angel" is small, but as Rugg reveals, they're all unique individuals. "Jesse Sanchez, our protaganist, is a 13-year-old, homeless girl who lives a hard life and beats up bad guys because no one else cares to. The locals know her as Street Angel. She fights drug dealers, ninja gangs, nepotism, and hunger to protect those less fortunate than herself. Although street smart, she's had a very limited education between the shortcomings of the local inner city school and her frequent absences. She's a little cynical naturally (eating out of a dumpster most of her life will do that) but still exhibits a childlike optimism.

"Anthony Eagle, a.k.a. the Bald Eagle is a one-armed torso who can still out skateboard almost anyone. A guy in the movie 'Kids' inspired his creation. I think there's a scene where a homeless guy with no lower body gets on a subway car or bus and he rides a skateboard. I'm not sure that's true, it's been many years since I've seen it but that guy and Tony Hawk both influenced the Bald Eagle.

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"Other noteworthy characters are the corrupt mayor of Angel City, Mayor Watson. He hates Wilkesborough because he hates the poor. So he ignores it for the most part unless he wants something. He also has a preppy, stuck-up daughter about Street Angel's age named Brittany. Trixie is one of the few friends Jesse has."

When dealing with superheroes, the common comic book fan will think DC or Marvel, commonly referred to as "The Big 2," or even perhaps think of Image Comics, but Slave Labor Graphics, despite their reputation for excellence, is not known for spandex and energy fists. "Slave Labor was our first choice because I thought 'Street Angel' would appeal to who I perceived their audience to be. Now that I've become more familiar with their line of comics I realize they are much more diverse than I thought. So we submitted the mini comic from the guidelines on their Web site and Dan Vado got in touch with us from that submission. So far, everything with them has been great. I am impressed with the quality of most of their books and other cartoonists. It's very exciting to be associated with them. I also plan to pick Dan's and Jennifer's (SLG's editor-in-chief) brains for as much critical feedback and knowledge as I can. In my limited comics experience I have found it very difficult to get high quality feedback so I plan to take advantage of this opportunity in that regard."

The first issue of "Street Angel" rewards readers with a vivid and deeply textured environment where ninjas abound, super heroes are somewhat odd and a girl on her skateboard is a veritable Supergirl. Though some may be taken aback at first, Rugg contends that Gotham City and Metropolis are not so different from the world of "Street Angel." "It is set in its own world, like some of DC Comics' make-believe cities. But it's not a terribly different world than ours. I think the ideas come from N.W.A."

"What's funnier than two middle/upper middle class white guys trying to imagine a ghetto?" laughs Maruca. "At least we realize that, though.I don't think it would be at all possible to put a superhero in our world, so I think it's a little silly to try."

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Bucking the trend of new superhero comics, "Street Angel #1" offers no origin story for the titular character and frankly, the creators don't believe she needs one. "For now readers should just accept her the way she is," contends Rugg. "We have a pretty specific idea of her background, if it makes sense to cover that in an upcoming story we will. But right now we have no plans to do so."

Maruca also points out that the amazing abilities of Street Angel are necessary for basic creative reasons. "She kicks so much butt because she would die if she didn't - and then we'd have a really short series," he laughs. "I guess we could make her some kind of ultimate ninja idiot savant. She's really good at fighting but can't tie her own shoes right."

Without sacrificing plot or characterization, "Street Angel" is squarely focused on being fun, for both creators and readers, a decision that is reinforced by the formers' perception of modern comic books. "There's definitely a lack of fun in comics these days," purports Rugg. "I wanted to concentrate on characters, especially Jesse Sanchez. The comics, books, and movies I tend to enjoy the most are often ones that feature well-developed and charismatic characters. If I like the character, I usually don't care what he/she does. I just enjoy watching them, listening to them, learning about them. I hope all of my work focuses on character first. I think a problem with some humor work is a lack of character development. I find something funny with distinct, sympathetic characters more rewarding than a series of in-jokes or a lazy parody based on very broad stereotypes."

Though it might not be surprising to find these two friends finishing each other's sentences, Maruca reveals there was debate over what direction "Street Angel" needed to go. "We argued a little on how we wanted things to be written. We debated on making the series much darker, gloomier - making her more bad-ass. But, I think we found a pretty good, broad area of common ground. It's dense because we focus a lot of attention on the story writing and planning."

"If I were a more competent cartoonist, I'd love to just do work that was the equivalent of people-watching at a shopping center," adds Rugg. "Wilkesborough is filled with fascinating characters; I hope to be able to capture that sense of different people with in the community. Developing the neighborhood and environment into a unique setting will add a texture to the book that enhances the characters. I think people, especially people who have lived in one place for a long time, are deeply affected by that place. So one of my goals is to try to define that environment. But it takes time, just like building the characters."

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Further eschewing modern trends, the creators promise to have self contained stories in each issue and it is in part, due to a love for comics of old. "The plan is for each issue to be self-contained," asserts Rugg. "Originally we planned to do a couple of oversized issues, like I imagine the old annuals were. I'm not sure whether that will happen or not. We also have a final story partially developed that might be oversized. But so far all of the 'Street Angel' that we've written will be self-contained. With the quarterly schedule I think self-contained issues make the most sense and offer the most readers the best possible experience."

Flipping to almost any page of "Street Angel," readers will be greeted by a lot of panels and a lot of dialogue- no pages of silent panels in this superhero story. Both creators sounded off on why this and their opinions on the "decompressed" storytelling of today. "I think my favorite quality of comics is the storytelling - the specific language that makes a comic unique. Brian and I develop very tight, detailed scripts for this book. Then that script is broken up into panels and sequences. This is the step where the story is translated into the 'comics' language. I think what Mignola, Chris Ware, Clowes, Chester Brown, and any great cartoonist does is similar to a magician. By taking out all the extra moments, details, actions, etc. and leaving behind only the keys necessary to communicate a specific idea to the reader, the cartoonist reveals an entire world. It's fantastic, the experience, when it works, is exhilarating, like deciphering a coded message when you're a kid. That's what makes cartooning so special. An outstanding draftsman might produce beautiful images that you can see when flipping through the book. But when you read the comic, if the cartooning is successful, you can actually enter that world. It's a tremendous feeling when it happens as a reader. The flipside is that because so little academic study has been applied to the art form, most cartoonists spend massive amounts of time experimenting and studying the cartoonists they feel are successful. It's such a question of, 'what can I leave out without jeopardizing the understanding of this sequence?' Mignola's first 10 years of 'Hellboy' are a great example of this. As he replaces more and more literal action from his sequences with details about setting, the passage of time, etc., he alters the reading experience of the comic. Each issue is thrilling as his images lead your imagination around this world that he's created. In answer to your question, the reason my pages seem full is because I'm interested in trying to learn this language of storytelling and the concentration of panels and comic elements (dialogue, captions, etc.) reflect this interest.

"I also want to give the reader a full experience for their 3 bucks. Comics aren't as proportionately cheap as they once were. Instead of emulating the latest Bruckheimer special effects bonanza, I think creators need to identify and concentrate on the strengths and advantages that comics have that other, competing entertainment media do not offer. In the 60s and 70s, Kirby depicted huge outer space epics with outlandish, colorful characters and dynamic action sequences that no other media could realize. Today, with CGI and god sized budgets, movies and video games can offer better visuals in these fantastic areas than almost any cartoonist. Combine those special effects with motion, sound, and interactivity and it's time to accept that comics lose readers because they aren't producing more compelling material; they've become pamphlets that rip off other media that once ripped off comics. The reason an explosion isn't better in a comic than a movie is because there's no bang in the comic and adding the 'bang' in an interactive DVD requires leaving the medium of comics. But one thing a comic can do that you'll never see in a big-budget movie is a unique, singular, non-homogenized vision. Why has Hollywood started strip-mining comics for subject matter? Because comics are a perfect vehicle for ideas.

"As for 'decompressed' storytelling as a trend, I hate it. It's like any other trend. To do something because it is a trend betrays the lack of integrity of the individual doing it, the company sponsoring it, and most damning, the work itself. This is especially devastating to a tiny medium that is struggling so hard with its attempt at legitimacy. I think decompressed storytelling is fine. I definitely hope to incorporate it into my vocabulary as a cartoonist. Issue 4 of 'Street Angel' may be an exercise in decompressed storytelling. I think manga has used decompressed storytelling more than the followers of Kirby and I think it has as much potential as any other communication technique in comics. Part of its sudden explosion in American comics could be the result of manga's rapid growth in the American bookstore and comic market in the last ten years. Suddenly every cartoonist has become exposed to a very different storytelling technique than the previously dominant Kirby model (and so too have many publishers and editors been exposed to a new, different marketing technique). I find this exciting and perhaps many other cartoonists do as well, as a result many of them have begun experimenting with it (with the blessings of their publishers so the publisher can try the new book distribution outlet that manga so successfully blazed a trail through). The problem lies in spreading a worthless story that should be a dashed off line of dialogue into a five part story so it can be collected into a trade paperback and resold in bookstores. A similar nearsighted, greedy, and thoughtless marketing plan destroyed comics' last surge of momentum towards wider acceptance as an art form in America in the wake of 'Maus,' 'Dark Knight,' and 'Watchmen' in the mid to late 80s.

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"Like everyone else, I'm not sure what the term 'graphic novel' means. As far as I can tell, the only requirement for a comic to be a 'graphic novel' is a squarebound spine. That's it. That's all it takes. To put it in perspective, if that binding was the only criteria in the literary world to determine what constitutes a novel, TV guide would qualify each week. If 'graphic novel' describes both Safe Area Gorazde and the trade paperback of Captain America vol. 3 issues 5-10, I think it may be time that someone breaks the term down into more descriptive subcategories."

Always one to lighten the mood, but not lose the focus, Maruca asks readers a question: "Isn't there a greater, long-standing trend in comics with people not reading them? That's a trend I'm more interested in. I'm stalling because I had to ask Jim what a 'decompressed' story was. I don't know squat about comics - but I like to think that I understand something about storytelling. Decompression's just a tool and you can't force it to work, so if there's a trend, there's bound to be lot's of people doing something just for the sake of doing it, and that's not usually a good idea."

There's a chance that some readers may pick up "Street Angel #1" and wonder if there's a "larger arc" or "bigger picture," but the simple answer is "no." "No larger arc planned at this time," says the artist. "'Street Angel' is a certain thing, and that thing is not a long arc. I've already had people ask about the 'big picture' concerning the book. It's hard to say. Each issue will be self-contained. I have no interest in repeating stories with just a substitution of a colorful, new villain each issue; it takes too long to draw one of these things to waste my time repeating what we've already done. My goal is to make each issue entertaining, some will differ greatly from the previous issue, once in a while an issue may be experimental. For me the criteria for the series will be one of quality (hopefully). I think 'Stray Bullets' has that characteristic. I'm never sure what the next issue will be like, but I haven't been disappointed with it yet. It's like getting a surprise gift that always turns out to be good. I'm sure 'Street Angel' won't be as good as Lapham's book, but that's the closest comparison for my approach towards the series. If the story's entertaining enough for me to draw, and I don't mess it up in the drawing process then that's good enough for me. And with such a limited audience (numbers-wise), I think an idiosyncratic, personal point of view is an asset that comics creators should take full advantage of. After a few issues I think readers will start to recognize characteristics that our personalities bring to the book and they will decide whether those characteristics make for an enjoyable comic or not."

New reader friendliness is on the mind of Maruca and he also admits, he just doesn't feel the need for multi part stories. "We've always been inclined to stick to complete, single issue stories. I just don't see the reason for doing otherwise. I don't rule it out, but I'm not going to do something simply for the sake of doing it.

"As for the bigger picture, I think that it's unabashedly a superhero comic, and reading should be vicarious sport. We want the reader to be pleasantly surprised at what's going to happen next (whatever that might be) without having to worry about what might have happened before. We want it to stay a superhero comic while stretching all of the expectations that go into a superhero comic."

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Though you may not get a Street Angel origin story any time soon, you will learn how Maruca and Rugg got together, as the latter explains, "We work a day job together. He's a tech-writer and I'm a graphic designer in a tiny marketing department. He's a far better writer than I am. He grew up reading books (and a few comics), I grew up reading comics (and some books). His perspective towards comics is that of a critical outsider, it's a refreshing point of view that greatly counterbalances my comicentric sensibility."

"Well, I can't draw at all, so I benefit the most from the working relationship," smiles Maruca. "Since my background is more English-majory, I act like a prima donna to make myself feel more important to the process."

Rugg's art style has been called "energetic" in some early reviews and while he appreciates the compliment, even he isn't sure how to define his work. "I don't know about it being too unique. I actually question whether I've even got a style yet. But I think there are a couple things that separate it from the majority of current comics. First, hand lettering. Second, I try not to draw heavy, smooth outlines around my characters. That seems to be popular these days and I don't respond well to it. I think cartoonists look at some of the simple looking work of Mignola and Oeming and people whose style is extremely economical and they copy the surface. Young cartoonists did it 10 years ago with Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and now they're doing it with these guys. I remember reading interviews where people criticized the clones for learning anatomy from Image comics instead of studying the underlying structure of what they were drawing. Today I see people learning simplicity from Mignola and Oeming. Of course, guys like Mignola and Oeming have spent so much time learning to simplify and mastering the use of silhouette and shadow that the structure under the stylized surface is nearly flawless. It has to be. The fewer lines used means fewer lines to conceal mistakes. It should be noted that I use a ton of lines (eventually I hope that will change). When I'm drawing I'm also interested in texture and I don't see a lot of that in many comics these days."

So what's next for "Street Angel?" "I'm disappointed to say that Street Angel will be quarterly," says Rugg. "I hope to do 10-12 issues. Issue 2 is borderline out of control. It features Conquistador-Pirates, Ninjas, Incans, time traveling, and a crash-landed astronaut. Issue 3, which I'm drawing right now, is a much tighter story, more Bald Eagle, and a more vulnerable Jesse Sanchez. It's an opportunity to see a different side of her when adversity strikes. That issue also shows off the setting of Wilkesborough more than the first couple issues and we get to see how the people of Wilkesborough view Street Angel. In issue 4, we're going to take a closer look at Jesse Sanchez, the 13-year-old, homeless girl - where she sleeps, how she survives, and so on.

Maruca teases fans with the ultimate draw: Ninjas! "We have a lot of ninja based ideas.we want to do a holiday issue (a special heart-warming holiday collector's edition).it's kind of hard to say, we're very flexible about what goes into each one, you can't be married to any one idea. I'm always pushing for something like a zombie Charles Nelson Rielly because man, that guy just cracked me up when he was alive."

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